31 July 2010

Confident, optimistic and forward-looking?

“We are a confident, optimistic and forward-looking people”, Julia Gillard told Kerry O’Brien on the ABC’s 7.30 Report last Monday 26 July.

That is not the way we strike me these days. We have done some confident, optimistic and forward-looking things, but most of them were a long time ago: establishing universities in Sydney and Melbourne in the 1850s, building the Sydney-Melbourne railway line, universal suffrage, female suffrage, the secret ballot, the Flying Doctor Service and more recently the Snowy Mountains Scheme. None of them was ever tested with a focus group.

A contemporary example of a forward-looking project is the National Broadband Network.

But consider the following:

-  Would a confident, optimistic and forward-looking people ever tolerate an election campaign of the irredeemable irrelevance of the one we are enduring at present, with both leaders evading the issues of substance and drowning us in trivia?

- Would a confident, optimistic and forward-looking people get itself into such a state about a tiny trickle of asylum seekers? The prevailing attitude hardly has the heroic ring of Emma Lazarus’s poem at the Statue of Liberty:

 ...”Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore....

Rather, we are the huddled masses, cringing (most of us) on the southeast corner of one of the richest and most sparsely populated countries in the world, waiting with Prime Ministerially understood anxiety for the next boat to appear over the horizon 5,000 km to the northwest.

-  Would a confident, optimistic and forward-looking people require to be reminded constantly by its political leadership that they are “doing it tough” but that the nanny state will ease their “cost of living pressures”? Of course there are people experiencing hardship in every country but these remarks are not addressed to them – we do very little for the genuinely poor, there are not enough votes in it. These remarks are addressed to the employed Australian middle class, the ones with houses, cars, kids and an array of consumer durables.

The notion that the employed Australian middle class is “doing it tough” is just plain laughable. Peer over the wall into the outdoor prison that is Gaza and you will see people who are doing it tough.  Go to a variety of working class neighbourhoods in the big cities of the United States, or visit a camp for Afghan refugees in Pakistan or Iran. Take a look around Calcutta or Bombay, or the slums of Manila.

-  Would a confident, optimistic and forward-looking people be incapable of responding to climate change, even when opinion poll after opinion poll indicates that the public regards it as an important issue that needs to be addressed?

-  Would a confident, optimistic and forward-looking people be as chronically incapable of investing in the nation’s infrastructure as we seem to be?  We snivel and whine about the urban sprawl and about congestion in our major cities, but when forward-looking people proposed construction of high speed rail between Sydney and Melbourne, or even just from Sydney to Canberra in the repechage event, the forces of darkness were hell-bent on killing the idea stone dead.  The French were forward-looking when they began the development of their high speed rail network, an investment that over time has transformed the way the country lives and works. To borrow a phrase from Nike, they just did it, rather than spend 25 years talking about it.

High speed rail could have a similar transformative effect in this country, opening up realistic options for providing for the inevitable growth of the nation’s population, and killing off short-haul aviation like the busy Canberra-Sydney route. 

And did I mention that governments of all complexions have been searching for the site of a second Sydney Airport since the 1940s, and that Mascot was only ever meant to be an interim location for an international airport (see the Parliamentary Library backgrounder here; see also my December 2009 post Déjà vu on second Sydney airport. Ennui too.)? I guess we could say that the governments of the 1940s were forward-looking; they knew that we needed a new Sydney Airport. It’s just that no-one got around to building one.

-  Would a confident, optimistic and forward-looking people sustain over decades one of the lowest national research and development spends in the industrialised world, and ruthlessly suppress curiosity-driven research?  We regard R&D as a regrettable cost. Forward-looking people regard it as an investment. They know that not every research project will produce a patentable widget within the next twelve months, and they know that a proportion of it will not bear fruit at all.  But they know that the modern world was built upon a foundation of research, and much of the most important of it had no clear commercial return in view, just the notion that there are some things we should find out more about.

-  Would a confident, optimistic and forward-looking people achieve less than the OECD average expenditure on education (between the former Soviet republics of Latvia and Lithuania on the 2005 data published in a recent OECD report) and a mediocre performance on tertiary education?

-  Would a confident, optimistic and forward-looking people regard the expectations of its major alliance relationship as being unexaminable, beyond discussion, even as trillion dollar budget deficits and the rise of other military and economic powers indicate that the military role of our ally must decline?

As a society I think we are looking pretty pathetic at the present time. I will begin to think we take ourselves seriously when we start to get serious about investing in education, research and development and transformative infrastructure (not just palliative care like too little too late tollways), and when we start to get serious about our changing strategic environment.

And we should remember that cannot expect others to take us more seriously than we take ourselves.

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